After 45 years, rabbi keeps temple on Raiskin time

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An M-1 Garand rifle and an 18-year-old kid from the slums of the Lower East Side named Gerald Raiskin were not a match made in heaven.

Even after long evenings at the rifle range during the latter years of World War II, the young private's targets remained pristine and unspoiled, completely uncontaminated by bullet holes.

You could read Braille off the ones to Raiskin's right and left, however.

"They couldn't figure out why I was not getting one shot onto my target," recalled Raiskin, whose company went on to capture Hitler's hometown in Austria. "After several days, the sergeant finally realized I was using the wrong eye and moving the rifle in the wrong direction."

Thankfully for the Bay Area Jewish community, Raiskin found a more suitable career outside the military. This month marks his 50th year in the rabbinate, and his 45th at Burlingame's Peninsula Temple Sholom — where he is the only senior rabbi the Reform congregation has ever had.

Known as the "dean of Bay Area rabbis," he is currently the longest-serving local rabbi at a single congregation. The temple will honor Raiskin during a two-day celebration on Friday and Saturday, June 22 and 23.

"Jerry Raiskin is not someone who went out to make a name for himself by his involvement in national movements or organizations. Jerry is a people's rabbi. That's part of his beauty," said Andrew Straus, a Peninsula Temple Sholom associate rabbi from 1991 to 1998 and now the senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Tempe, Ariz.

"The day I came to interview for my position, just before four o'clock, Jerry excused himself and said religious school was about to start, and he's always outside to welcome the kids as they come. For seven years I was there and every Sunday morning, rain or shine, Jerry Raiskin was outside shaking hands, giving hugs or high-fives. Often, they were rainy days and he had his umbrella."

Raiskin has been welcoming religious school students ever since he was a young rabbi who, in the early years, still revealed his Manhattan upbringing with telltale expressions such as "beauty-ful." In some cases, the greetings he gives to kids are third-generation high-fives.

"I've enjoyed seeing him interact with other congregants in times of joy and times of distress," said Don Ermann, the congregation's president and a friend of Raiskin's since the late 1950s. "I've seen him, unfortunately, officiate at many, many funerals, and he's very good at making the bereaved feel comfortable. I've gone with him to the mikvah for conversions, and I've seen the joyous part of that. I don't think he's lost his enthusiasm for what he does one bit since I met him."

Along with his renowned enthusiasm, longtime friends and congregants are amazed by the 75-year-old Raiskin's seemingly boundless energy. The rabbi walks four miles every morning and says he still has enough energy to roll around on the floor with the kids at the congregation's monthly Tot Shabbat.

The rabbi is also well-known for his punctuality. Around the synagogue, congregants and co-workers joke about "Raiskin time" — meaning a 10 a.m. service will not start at 10:01.

"If he says he's going to be in the office at 1 p.m., at 12:59 he's pulling up in the parking lot and he's walking through the door at 1 p.m.," said Nancy Sivy, Raiskin's secretary for the past decade. "He's really on call 24/7. He never ever says, 'I'm too busy' or 'I have too much workload.' He's just there for people."

An aversion to tardiness may be Raiskin's only area of inflexibility. Friends and fellow synagogue employees commented on the rabbi's openness to new ideas and innovative concepts. For one, congregants have enjoyed Raiskin's unusual, highly participatory "sermons" for three decades now.

"Thirty years ago, I took off two Friday nights and went to visit other synagogues. I found that I was bored. The sermons that I heard at the time, really, I couldn't wait until they were over," recalled Raiskin.

"I came back to the congregation and said, 'That's probably what I've been doing. I have to change this format.'"

Instead of preaching from the pulpit, Raiskin frequently steps off the bimah and sits in the first rows, leading a discussion on a biblical passage or issue of the day and calling on congregants to voice their opinions.

"He really wants to know what the congregation is thinking," said David Monasch, the temple's educator from 1967 to 1980 and a past board president. "He's looking for feedback, and he's not looking for pat answers, either. One of the things that has sustained his rabbinate is he is so caring and wants his congregants to be caring of one another."

Congregants enjoy swapping Raiskin stories, but Sivy thinks hers takes the cake.

A few years back, one of the synagogue's administrative workers fractured her wrist in an on-the-job mishap, and required a visit to the emergency room. But by the time the injured worker had been driven several blocks to a nearby hospital, Raiskin was already at the scene and waiting at the door, having corralled an emergency room doctor he knew.

"I don't know how he beat us down there in the car," recalled Sivy. "He had all his mail that had come that morning with him and he sat down in a chair in the waiting room with the mail in his lap and said, 'If you need me, I'm here.' That's a picture of who he is."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.